Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The origins of ranching in the Great Plains can be traced to those Spanish settlers who first arrived in the Western Hemisphere. Beginning as early as 1500, vaqueros, or Spanish cowboys, were engaged in raising cattle for commercial purposes in the Caribbean Islands. During this early period the Spaniards' tradition of open-range herding and horsemounted drovers was influenced by African ranching techniques. African slaves working as herders introduced the idea of herding the cattle off the range and into pens at the close of each day to keep the animals from straying off the ranch at night. The Africans also contributed several new words to the Spanish lexicon that became commonly associated with the ranching industry. For example, linguists claim that the word "dogie," a term used to describe a motherless calf trailing behind a herd of cattle, originated from the Bombara language of West Africa. Nevertheless, despite such African influences, the Spanish tradition of ranching remained dominant during this early colonial period.

Following in the wake of Hernán Cortés, Spaniards first brought cattle from the Caribbean Islands to the North American mainland when Gregorio Villalobos arrived in 1520 through the port of the Paunco River near present-day Tampico, Mexico. Scholars have substantially documented the early exploits of Spanish conquistadors against the Indigenous people of Mexico, but less known is the Natives' contempt for the Spaniards' cattle that ravaged their agricultural fields, decimating valuable subsistence crops. By 1529 the abundance of livestock in Spanish North America made it necessary to organize the first ranching association, or mesta. The mesta required that all ranchers register their brands with the authorities located in Mexico City. The cattle industry quickly became an integral part of the Mexican colonial economy, especially after the mid–sixteenth century, when Spanish silver mines opened in the northern reaches of Mexico. For those Spaniards living in the northern mining camps, beef became a significant part of their diet.

The Spanish tradition of ranching in the American West began when Don Juan de Oñate's men herded more than 1,000 head of cattle across to El Paso del Norte, present-day El Paso, Texas, in April 1598. Later, Spanish missions assembled large herds of cattle in Texas, and by the latter part of the eighteenth century, more than a million head of cattle grazed in the open grasslands between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers. It is estimated that in 1770 the mission La Bahia del Espiritu Santo, near Goliad, was running approximately 40,000 cattle between the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers.

The famous Texas longhorn breed of cattle evolved from these early Spanish herds. Throughout the 1760s and 1770s vaqueros drove Spanish cattle eastward along trails to markets located in New Orleans. During the American Revolution, Spanish cattle from Texas proved a valuable source of nourishment for Anglo-American settlers living in the frontier regions of present-day Kentucky.

Louisiana was the "middle ground" where Anglos first came into contact with the Hispanic tradition of cattle ranching. Herding cattle was already an established profession of backcountry pioneers in the frontier regions of the southern British colonies in North America. However, the cattle industry in the British colonies differed considerably from the Hispanic tradition of ranching. Anglo ranchers constructed pens that were used to corral their cattle many miles from their established farms. African or mulatto slaves and indentured servants were charged with the care of the animals. Using dogs rather than riding horses to herd the short-horned British cattle, the colonial herders acquired the moniker "cowboys." In their efforts to find fresh grazing land, the Anglo cattlemen, both owner and herder, often found themselves in the vanguard of westward migration.

Shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century, the backcountry drovers crossed the Mississippi River. As eastern ranchers moved farther west, the Anglo tradition of ranching began to merge with the well-established practices of the Spanish vaqueros. The newcomers to the American West learned and adopted the vaquero traditions of horsemanship and roping. Spanish influences on the Anglo cattle culture are clearly evident in the terminology commonly associated with the western cattle industry. Words such as "lariat," "lasso," "rodeo," "bronc," "corral," "sombrero," and "stampede" all have Spanish origins. While scholars credited Anglos with spreading the cattle industry northward to the Great Plains from Texas and Louisiana between 1865 and the 1880s, they also suggest that the American ranchers could not have accomplished this feat without first accepting the Spanish model of ranching. Between 1870 and the late 1880s every American cowboy who went up the Goodnight-Loving Trail to Denver, the Western Trail to Dodge City, and the Chisholm Trail to Abilene used the same techniques the Spanish vaqueros had introduced to North America nearly 300 years before the first railheads emerged on the Central Plains.

The Spaniards made other contributions to the ranching heritage of the Great Plains. In addition to Spanish cattle, the Spaniards brought horses with them to the New World. The Spanish horse, like the longhorn, descended from stock brought into Spain during the eighth and ninth centuries by the invading Moors of North Africa. After the Spanish moved into the Southwest, some of their horses escaped into the wild, multiplied, and formed feral herds that eventually populated the Plains. These wild horses became the American West's famous mustang. The mustang horse became one of the most important components of the Great Plains cattle industry. Both Spanish vaqueros and American cowboys praised the endurance and dependability that the mustangs demonstrated in the rigid daily routines associated with working cattle on the open range.

An aspect of the Hispanic ranching heritage that has received less scholarly attention than the cattle industry is the Spanish sheepherders. Sheepherders used the same basic principles as the cattlemen: they grazed and watered their sheep on the public domain and drove their animals along established trails to reach distant markets.

The Spaniards first introduced sheep into present-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas as part of the Spanish mission establishments. By 1779 the Hopis were grazing approximately 30,000 sheep, and one mission in California was reported to have 100,000 sheep in its herd. The main center of the Spanish sheep industry, however, was located in New Mexico. Throughout the late nineteenth century the sheep population increased dramatically in the New Mexico Territory. In 1850 there were at least 377,000 sheep raised in the region and by 1880 there were over 2 million sheep grazing the New Mexico countryside. By 1865 herders in New Mexico had moved their sheep north into the eastern ranges of Colorado Territory. During the 1880s Texas became an important center of the sheep industry– more than 8 million sheep grazed the Texas range by the middle of the decade. On a much smaller scale, sheep ranching also developed in Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas. In these regions there were no large sheep ranches, but many small commercial enterprises dotted the Northern Plains. Scholars estimate that between 1865 and 1900 approximately 15 million sheep were herded along eastern trails to railheads and feedlots located in Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota.

The ranching heritage of the Great Plains thus originated with the first Spanish settlers and continued to develop according to the trends established by the early Spanish vaqueros. The most significant contributions of Hispanic cattlemen involved the introduction of longhorn cattle to the North American Plains and the perfection of the techniques used in moving these rugged animals from one location to the next. The equestrian skills learned from the Hispanic vaqueros proved invaluable to the American cowboys who drove cattle up the trails from Texas through the Plains to railheads in Kansas and Nebraska. The Spanish sheep industry served as the cornerstone of an alternative model of ranching that became economically important to the western regions of the Central Plains. For these reasons, the Hispanic ranching culture was vital in establishing the foundation of a ranching tradition in the Great Plains.

See also AGRICULTURE: Cattle Ranching.

Kenneth W. Howell Blinn College

Hine, Robert V., and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Jordan, Terry G. North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.

Webb, Walter P. The Great Plains. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1931.

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